Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Song Sung Blue

Song Sung Blue (2008)

Milwaukee may not be our largest city, but it has inspired two documentaries about ordinary people following their dreams in the entertainment world. First it was American Movie, about aspiring filmmaker Mark Borchardt. This time around, Brew City is the setting for Song Sung Blue, which follows Mike and Claire Sardina, who performed around the city as Lightning & Thunder, a Neil Diamond tribute act.

The beginning of the movie, for the most part, is a whirlwind. An array of performance clips and interviews establish that Lightning & Thunder had a legitimate following in Milwaukee. Sure, there is a cheese factor to watching Lightning with his buxom blonde back up singer, but there's no denying that this was as sincere a tribute as could be. Lightning has Neil Diamond's phrasing and tone down fairly well, and is a big ham, making for a solid musical experience and a lot of fun.

Lightning & Thunder reached an apex in 1995, when Eddie Vedder invited them to perform a song during Pearl Jam's set at Milwaukee's Summerfest. Lightning relates that Vedder wanted them to perform "Song Sung Blue", but Lightning nixed that, explaining that "Forever in Blue Jeans" was the right song for the Pearl Jam crowd. The footage of Vedder singing with the duo is hilarious, but the 30,000 or so in attendance ate it up.

But this movie isn't really about the act. It's a love story about an inseparable couple who lived for performing. There is no doubt they love each other, but a large part of the love was fueled by the magic they created (and felt) on stage.

So when an elderly driver drove up on the Sardina lawn while Claire was mowing it, she lost part of her left leg, which caused a downward spiral from which she and her husband/partner had a hard time recovering from. The giddy energy of the movie grinds to a halt, as the travails of the Sardinas are often painful to watch.

The pair allowed director Greg Kohs extraordinary access during this terrible period. Moreover, Mike Sardina kept his video camera running during some of the most awkward moments. In one particularly chilling home video, Claire delivers a holiday message that almost seems like a suicide note of sorts.

This section of the movie might go on a bit long, but what is remarkable is how the Sardinas ultimately endure. And they keep the dream alive. A prosthetic leg and a near complete dissipation of their audience during their lost years is no deterrent. Even more remarkable is it becomes apparent that their sole livelihood was Lightning & Thunder.

At this point, I'd have to travel to Spoiler City to go on about the movie. Let me just say that there are more ups and downs, and by the end of the movie, I was far from the only one who had failed to hold back the tears.

The movie is full of local flavor, whether Kohs takes a detour to Neil Diamond's favorite frozen custard spot in Milwaukee or gets insight from an array of local characters who knew Lightning & Thunder. For example, a member of the odd-rock band The Frogs has a great anecdote about Lightning's sort of meeting with Neil Diamond.

I was fortunate to see this at a festival screening. After the movie, Kohs, Thunder and her daughter (a teen in the movie, a young adult now) took some questions, and Thunder even gave us a rendition of Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight".

Kohs noted that the movie almost didn't get played at Slamdance. He was having trouble getting the music licensing cleared. With things coming down to the wire, he called in a favor from the number one Lighting & Thunder fan in the world, Eddie Vedder.

Vedder got on the horn with Neil Diamond and a copy of the movie was shipped to the living legend. Soon thereafter, Kohs got a call from one of Neil's people: Neil wanted the movie to show at Slamdance.

Maybe Eddie and Neil can now find a way to get this movie into general release. While they're at it, they should write a song about Mike and Claire. It would be perfect for two of the most dramatic singers of the past couple of generations.

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